Beyond Lionel Trilling's classic definition of Modernism as anticultural and subversive, Margaret Dickie posits American Modernist poetry as both conservative and affirmative—conservative because it was dominated by the composition of the long poem, affirmative because these poems aimed to restore public themes to poetry, to instruct and improve, to "affirm the gold thread in the pattern," as Ezra Pound claimed.
Each poet discussed in this new study—T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound—began his career as an experimenter in brief lyrics and then, paradoxically, developed an ambition to write a long public poem. The poems they wrote—The Waste Land, The Bridge, Paterson, and The Cantos—differed in length, in program, and in composition, but all were alike in their idealization of form, their commitment to the long poem, and the troubled and difficult process of their composition. Read together, they offer a new understanding of the Modernist sense of form shared by these quite different writers.
Tracing the development of each poem from the poet's initial announced plans through the lengthy writing and reconsideration of purpose, Dickie offers a new history not only of each poem but of the American Modernists and the ways they adapted the avant-garde tendencies of European Modernism to their own native needs.